NHL joins fight against homophobia in sports

Ron Hainsey #6 of the Winnipeg Jets and Brenden Morrow #10 of the Pittsburgh Penguins battle for position during the third period on February 28, 2013 at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Hainsey, NHLPA Executive Board member, issued a statement supporting the NHL's alliance with You Can Play. Photo by Vincent Pugliese/ Getty Images

The National Hockey League and its players association are teaming up with an advocacy group that promotes gay rights and strives to foster a welcoming environment for gay athletes, the league announced Thursday.

The "historic partnership" makes the NHL the first of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues to form an official alliance with the You Can Play Project, an organization that aims to end homophobia in sports locker rooms.

According to nhl.com, the official partnership with You Can Play includes a rookie symposium to educate players on LGBT issues as well as the broadcast of public service announcements.

"Our motto is 'Hockey Is For Everyone,' and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "We are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players' Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands."

Patrick Burke, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers, launched You Can Play last year in memory of his brother Brendan, who died in a car accident in 2010. The year before his death, Brendan made headlines when he came out while serving as the manager of a college hockey team.

No player in a major American team sport has been openly gay during his playing career. However, last month CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman reported that there are indications a current NFL player is "strongly considering" coming out publicly within the next few months.

"As NHL players, we all strive to contribute towards helping our teams achieve success on the ice. Any player who can help in those efforts should be welcomed as a teammate," said Ron Hainsey, Winnipeg Jets defenseman and NHLPA Executive Board member in a statement. "This partnership solidifies the message that the hockey community believes in fairness and equality for everyone."

Last year, the University of Connecticut men's hockey team joined forces with You Can Play, producing two videos for the group.

The issue of gay rights has stirred controversy in the NHL before. In 2011, former Rangers agitator Sean Avery publicly supported same-sex marriage in a video.

The player's public support for gay marriage drew fire from a hockey agent and a Toronto broadcaster was fired after criticizing Avery's stance.

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